When Gai Brodtmann won Labor preselection for the seat of Canberra, her husband hit the phones to talk to senior Liberals, including Tony Abbott. Chris Uhlmann wanted to know whether the opposition had a problem with one of the ABC’s most senior Canberra hacks sleeping with an opponent.
Abbott does not — a spokesperson told Crikey there are “no concerns whatsoever from our corner”. Nor does the ABC, which says it’s “comfortable” with Uhlmann continuing his role as Canberra commentator on the 7:30 Report and, later this year, taking up the position of political editor at the ABC’s new 24-hour news channel just months out from a federal election campaign.
The Liberal leader calls Uhlmann a “highly professional journalist” — a fact nobody disputes. But some inside the ABC criticise a policy left open to interpretation by management. Crikey has learned of one case where a reporter was stood down from all political reporting because of a relationship with a candidate.
Uhlmann told Crikey he can manage the conflict — he’s become pretty good at it, he says, since the couple’s first meeting in 1991, with Brodtmann working as a political adviser during the ACT government elections and Uhlmann then a journalist for the Canberra Times. Reporting on politics is conducted as carefully as conversation sometimes needs to be negotiated at home.
“We have been managing it for the course of our lives,” he said. “We’re careful in what we discuss with each other.”
Brodtmann, a PR consultant, former ministerial adviser to Bob McMullan and long-time Labor Party member, looks set for parliament after winning a messy factional fight — Canberra is held by retiring MP Annette Ellis on a sizeable 11.8% margin.
That’s fine by Alan Sunderland, the head of national programs for ABC News, who told Crikey he’s “very comfortable” with the relationship. While there’s “obviously a potential conflict to be managed”, the journalist hasn’t reported on the preselection and can avoid covering her election challenge.
“We look at what is the conflict, what has to be avoided, can he then go on and do his normal job? In this case the answer is yes,” he said. “We think they’re [the potential for conflict] perfectly manageable in the current environment.”
According to section 4.4.6 of the ABC’s editorial policies manual: “supervisors must be told about any associations or interests which an individual has that may conflict with editorial responsibilities”, and “the responsible managers … will decide the appropriate course of action”. This includes excluding a reporter from an assignment or “particular stories or programs related to the outside activity, association or interest”, and/or making a “public disclosure … broadcast or published online”.
Uhlmann is taking a position of open disclosure. He posed for photos in The Australian after Brodtmann’s win — less about his job and more because, as he asks, what husband wouldn’t stand by his wife after such a momentous occasion? — and took the matter to his bosses at the first available opportunity.
“It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to raise and I have no problems with people raising it at all,” he said.
“There is the potential there for a real conflict. I guess in the end people will judge what I do by how I conduct myself.”
But other cases have been dealt with differently. In 2008, Northern Territory Stateline presenter Margie Smithurst was stood down from the position during an election campaign that had her then boyfriend running as a candidate for the ALP. She was not allowed to return to hosting the program once he was elected to parliament, or report as part of radio current affairs in case political stories came up.
Smithurst — who has since ended the relationship and moved to Melbourne to present for the ABC’s Asia-Pacific television service — didn’t want to comment on the decision when contacted by Crikey. But she did say it put considerable strain on the relationship due “to the pressures of not being able to do the job I wanted to do”.
Sunderland confirmed the case but noted Smithurst was a temporary fill-in presenter of Stateline. He said her boyfriend, now party whip Michael Gunner, was “too central to the political debate” at the time. “Because politics was so small in the Northern Territory the notion of a back-bencher is redundant,” he said.
But others inside the ABC point to the subjectivity of what constitutes conflict and what action should be taken to avoid it. Sunderland admits matters are dealt with on a case-by-case basis, though “the principles are hard and fast”.
“Sometimes disclosure is enough, sometimes more than disclosure is required,” he said.